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Merest Moments

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

It’s one of those long June evenings when the traces of light in the sky hang on and on as you drive home. Soon enough it will be the longest day of the year—as close as time comes to standing still.

We are driving back from John Hopkins’ screening of Timepiece, his almost-completed film about his mother, Hilda Woolnough. The film takes its name from the major installation on which she spent several years toward the end of her life. Hilda died in 2007, but there she was on the screen tonight, larger than life as she created the big prints for the work and discussed the origins of Timepiece and the techniques involved in its production.

The woman we observe has an enduring youthfulness. For me that was the impression she always gave, even when she was afflicted by the cancer that would kill her. She grew older, but she never grew old. Mostly I talked to her at the Farmer’s Market, and the lively, attentive figure on the screen brought her back, amused and amusing, boiling over with the excitement of her work.

Someone once said that Beethoven’s first language was music. Though Hilda was verbally articulate, she always asserted that she thought best with her eyes and her fingers, and John’s film captures that quality. We see her fingers drawing, her bright gaze watching the prints emerge from the work of her hands. In one recurrent image the viewer observes her tall figure swimming, moving through dark water and glittering light, her stroke powerful and graceful.

On the soundtrack her voice talks about time and change, and suggests some of the thinking behind her big installation. I remember seeing Timepiece at the Confederation Centre art gallery; it was like being in a room with many windows, each window a print leading us into a complicated, detailed, iconic universe, richly coloured, often glimmering with a metallic sheen. Even the frames had an unusual depth, decorated as they were with stars, insects, sea creatures.

My only hesitation about the work when I viewed it was the soundtrack. Perhaps if I had gone back more often I would have grown fond of it, but somehow it seemed to me a little irrelevant to the complicated beauty of the visual inventions.

Which raises an interesting question. Hilda Woolnough’s installation was created as an exploration of time, but it is of course music that actually uses time as its means of expression. The Woolnough work uses not time, but space, shape, and colour to evoke developments within a strongly defined pattern, time stopped and questioned. But perhaps art is always impelled by contradiction.

Answering questions after the screening, John Hopkins mentioned that Timepiece is still without a home. Substantial as it is, it would need a large public venue, and both purchase budgets and storage space are in short supply these days. So it waits to be rediscovered by a new audience.

I thought for a moment of Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth. Gulley Jimson, the raffish hero of that book, is driven, toward the end of his life, to create larger and larger paintings, and his preference is to paint directly on high walls. What may be his greatest work vanishes when the wall on which it is being created is knocked down.

Cary’s book gives a sense of the struggle through which spiritual inspiration finds its shape in the material world, and that is perhaps part of the subtext of John Hopkins’ film and his mother’s most substantial work of art.

Time is unrelenting in its assault. However slow and still they may seem, the long evenings of June are the merest moments in time’s course. We all must hope that Hilda’s richest achievement will find a permanent home. Still, John Hopkins’ film makes clear that her long and daring creative process was, like all art, in many ways its own reward, and her pre-eminent conquest of time.


The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

You can plan your itinerary when you’re travelling, but with any luck, astonishing and unexpected things will put themselves in your path. Fond of music as I am, I keep my eyes open for performances that sound interesting.

There are, of course, mistakes. I have only once been to Florence, and that was many years ago. One of the high points was a visit to the convent attached to the church of San Marco, the white walls of the monks’ small cells decorated with superb frescoes by the great Renaissance artist Fra Angelico. Turned out there was a concert to be given by the church choir that evening. How could it be anything but wonderful?

It was anything but wonderful.

Then there was the occasion when Judy and I were visiting Paris and saw signs for a concert by students of a music school. Rossini I think they were performing. This was Paris. How could it be anything but wonderful?

Well, it was one of the strangest concerts I have ever heard, with two conductors indicating the beat, one for the orchestra, one for the choir. The whole night from the ticket sales on was just as bizarre.

More reliable on trips to Paris have been the concerts presented, mostly for a tourist audience, at the Sainte Chapelle. The musicians are professional and always worth hearing. Schubert’s String Quintet in C major is a well-known work, but I had never heard it until we attended a marvellous performance at the Sainte Chapelle. The last time we were there it was Holy Week, and we heard Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. The music was well sung and played, but it was an unusually cold March evening, the beautiful old stone and glass building unheated, and to survive the pretty soprano had to keep herself tightly wrapped in a black shawl whenever she wasn’t actually singing.

Recently in San Francisco we had an exceptional piece of luck. Out walking one morning I saw a sign for a music school and a free concert to be held that very evening. I checked to make sure I had the information correct, and late in the afternoon we arrived. The school’s recital hall was large enough for perhaps a hundred and fifty people, and the seats were soon filled. The musicians were Alisa Weilerstein, a young American cellist, and a Russian-born pianist of the same generation, Lera Auerbach.

What they performed over the next hour was a selection of pieces from Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for Cello and Piano. Inspired by Shostakovich (who took his inspiration from Chopin and Bach) she first wrote a set of preludes for piano, then a set for piano and violin, and finally these cello and piano preludes.

The performance, which included some conversation about the music, was a part of what was to be presented in a major San Francisco concert hall the next evening, and it was a revelation. Lera Auerbach was an unknown name to me, though she has begun to develop a significant reputation as a composer. Her music was passionate, lyric, witty, and brilliantly played. The influences on the work included everything from Russian folk song to Jimmy Hendrix. The two performers appeared to be immensely well-suited. Alisa Weilerstein remarked that Lera Auerbach was the only musician she’d played with who had never suggested she pull back, play less passionately or more slowly. Many of those in the neighbourhood audience, as the questions afterward made clear, were musicians, and everyone listened with concentration and responded with enthusiasm.

Fine music, and an astonishing further fact to be found in the one-page program was that Lera Auerbach has also published a number of books of poems; her poetry is widely taught in Russian schools and universities. She has even written a stage play which is she is now setting as a full-length opera.

What things you can happen upon while walking the streets of a strange city.

Visual Vitality

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

A cool April morning, and I am walking along Mission Street in San Francisco. Across the road I notice a woman, her feet and legs bare, making her way tentatively along the sidewalk, her drugged brain not too clear on why she is there half naked, half-dancing. On an afternoon a couple of days later, walking back from the drug store, I notice a small, sturdy woman in a very short skirt come out the narrow metal grill door of the Krishna Hotel to connect with a customer waiting on the pavement. It’s that kind of neighbourhood. As you walk up Mission Street, there are homeless men pushing shopping carts that hold their few possessions, but also families, mostly latino, out with their children. As you pass along, you can’t miss the painting on the walls.

In the days of my recent visit to San Francisco, as I wandered about observing the stores and bars and hotels, the action on the streets, I became a little obsessed with the wall-painting, some of it random graffiti, some of it carefully designed and executed murals and decorations. One of the first things that caught my eye was a Women’s Centre, a building three or four storeys high on 18th Street. Almost every inch of the front and side walls is painted with carefully crafted designs in vivid colours. Ornate decorative patterns suggest the art of Central and South America. Female figures, human and more than human, embody an ideal of strength and support. Mothers hold children in their arms. Huge hands support naked figures among waves and flowers. One woman tends another, while a third holds a sign demanding more funds for health research.

Mural art has old roots here. San Francisco was one of the cities where Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter of political murals, worked in the 1930s, so it is not surprising that walls in the Mission district are often covered with public art. A building owned by Pacific Gas and Electric has, on one of its walls, a large mural—its few words all in Spanish—in praise of the San Francisco Giants.

Not far from the Women’s Centre is a Community Thrift Store. While there is no decoration on the front of the store, both side walls are covered with energetic and varied designs and visual narratives. One section bears a dedication: TO ALL INDIGENOUS PEOPLE MADE PRISONERS IN THEIR OWN LAND. The huge panel is signed by Amìlca Mouton-Fuentes and labelled as part of the Clarion Alley Mural Project of 1998.

All the back fences and walls of Clarion Alley are covered with wall paintings and graffiti, from repeated tags to complicated designs. At the end of the block stands a storefront Pentecostal church, and its side walls are bright with lines of religious narrative. I KNOW WHICH WAY THE RIVER FLOWS, WHEN I WAS YOUNG I WAS TOLD, one panel says.

Not every property owner wants graffiti on the wall, and it is often possible to see where tags and patterns have been painted over. Still wherever you look the spray cans have been busy blasting out shape and colour. Many of the stores on Mission Street have metal covers that pull down over the windows at night, scalloped strips of metal mounted side by side so that the metal surface will bend as it is raised and slid away. On some of these uneven surfaces the street artists have invented a kind of folk-art pointillism, patches of paint dabbed on the horizontal lines of the folding grey metal. On one door someone has created a subtly coloured abstract sky and sun.

Streets of order and disorder, and among it all these outbursts of visual vitality, some of it rebellious, some an expression of a committed populism. In the thin air of our academic art, dim conceptual constructions, the crude energy of the work offers a brighter kind of dance.

Looking Backward

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

We are all minor characters in other people’s stories. A lifetime ago I was a university teacher for a while, and there may still be a few former students who remember me as the lecturer with a tendency to wear unmatched socks. If we survey our past we come upon those who represent an era in our lives.

Recently I have been recalling my mother’s Uncle Will. William Brett. Apart from my grandmother he is the member of that family I remember best. He was the oldest son of the family, probably, I think, the oldest child. He would have been born, by my guess, between 1875 and 1880, and I met him in his old age, a small, spruce man with a moustache, who walked with difficulty on legs that were severely bowed—an affliction that affected his siblings as well, especially in old age. Rickets perhaps.

When I was young we lived in Toronto, and now and then we would visit his house, somewhere in the west end, not too far from where we lived. I suspect that he was my mother’s favourite among her aunts and uncles. We would sit in a small, dim living room, adjacent to the kitchen, with an upholstered arm chair in the corner, occupied by his wife, Auntie Cis. A very Victorian name, a variation of the name Dickens gave to the heroine of his novel Hard Times, Cissy Jupe. Auntie Cis was diabetic, a plump passive figure, only her fingers active, crotcheting squares out of odd colours of leftover wool. Not quite an invalid but a valetudinarian figure—to use an old fashioned word for an old fashioned state of health.

Uncle Will himself was a bright-eyed, friendly figure. Once, when we were visiting, he discovered that I had joined the Boy Scout movement, and he gave me his ancient copy of Baden-Powell’s book Scouting for Boys.

I remember the room, the house, the two old people, childless, polite, the aura of Edwardian or Victorian times. But hidden in this quiet life was a poignant past.  My mother told me the stories.

Will, it appears, was very clever when he was a schoolboy, unexpectedly bright and interested for a working man’s son, and one of his schoolteachers attempted to keep him on in school, to see that he learned all he could to rise in the world. Not clear that any such thing happened, but when I was clearing out my mother’s house after her death I found a copy of Looking Backward, a Utopian novel by the American activist and socialist Edward Bellamy. In it was written the name William Brett. There had always been a hint of left-wing opinion in my mother’s family, and here was evidence that Uncle Will may have been the family’s political intellectual.

Then there was the other story. Will, as a young working man, was the first of his family to emigrate to Canada; the others followed him. I never heard the reasons he was impelled to leave England, but I can make a good guess.

A Victorian family album. The book came to me from my mother, and in it is a picture of a young woman, looking to one side, an alert, sensitive face, soft, shapely lips. Vinnie, says the handwriting at the top of the page, Uncle Will’s first wife. Died in childbirth with her first child. It was a true love-match, I was told, and William Brett was shattered by his loss. He was never the same again. That phrase comes back to me.

Those who are minor figures in our personal myth are, I remind myself, the suffering and enduring heroes of their own. Uncle Will went on with life, worked, remarried, outlived his second wife. He stayed for a little while as a boarder with my grandparents, around the corner from our house, a quiet, pleasant old man, keeping his stories to himself.

Crossing Over

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I don’t watch television much these days, the local news, live sports now and then, maybe one or two shows during the week. Our only connection to the outside world is rabbit ears, but even if we had a dozen channels I suspect I wouldn’t watch a lot more. But I have become a student of TV drama on the CBC since that’s all we get. I once worked in CBC TV drama, and I wrote a few scripts, years ago now.

I’ve been thinking about The Border, a series which I watched with some regularity this season. I have a weakness for crime fiction and the kind of television that’s derived from it, but when I first saw the promos for The Border a couple of years ago I decided that I disapproved of it and wouldn’t watch.

The premise of the show appeared to be that we are dangerously embattled, that we must guard our borders against the violent men who are lying in wait, who are out to get us. Many words for that set of attitudes, paranoia being one of them. Here on the Island I hear there are those who don’t feel the need to lock their doors at night, and that’s surely a sign of a healthy society. But at the same time, in a rapidly changing world there will always be some unease over the way things are going.

“Few democratic governments can resist the temptation to turn this sentiment of fear to political advantage.” That’s the estimable Anglo-American historian and commentator Tony Judt. We have recently seen the example of the current Canadian government trying to foment excitement about crime and criminal justice in a society where crime rates are stable or falling. Who’s in favour of crime? Not you. Not me. Who’s afraid of it? More and more people if the government has its way. A frightened population is easily manipulated.

Back to The Border. At some point I turned on an episode, partly because an old friend, the film scholar Peter Harcourt, taught some of the makers of the series in his days at Queen’s University, and he was prepared to defend the show. Then I discovered that one of the semi-regular characters was played by Julie Stewart, the daughter of another old friend. Julie grew up with my children.

So I began to watch it. Highly conventional, American style, with more or less every episode ending with people running around shooting off guns. It was nice to see Julie getting work, and she had some good scenes, but the show compared badly with the complex, highly original and imaginatively convincing CBC series called Intelligence which came out of Vancouver, a couple of years ago, a show about crime that largely avoided on-screen violence, though it contained one of the most chilling moments I remember on television. Two words, muttered sideways in an undertone. Intelligence was a show that could be mentioned in the same breath as that excellent HBO series, The Wire. (I watched that one on DVD when the Buzz editors recommended it.)

The Border was good at getting around the country a little, the camera work was attractive, and the magic nerd who solved every mystery was charmingly played by Jonas Chernik. So I watched it for a few weeks, and in spite of its premise it mostly avoided an entirely paranoid view of our borders with the outside world—though I was always sceptical of a series that took as heroes the government department that has been unable to discover and adopt the widely used Returning Citizens line to sort those entering the country by air.

Then in the final episode a bunch of tattooed evil Mexicans gets a group of our heroes and heroines trapped in an inexplicably isolated immigration centre and enough ammunition for a small civil war is blown off, the story unresolved, deliberately left in suspense—come back next year.

No thanks.


The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I remember opening a copy of The New Yorker a few years back and turning to a new story by Alice Munro. It was called “Hired Girl.” I read the title and the first few lines. Wait a minute, I thought, I’ve read this story before.

When Alice Munro’s first book, The Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968, I reviewed it, and I still have the review copy of the book on my shelves, along with most of her other books. After seeing the story in The New Yorker I dug out Dance of the Happy Shades, and just as I thought, it contained a story similar to the one I had just discovered and called “Sunday Afternoon.” Recently I decided to take a look at the two of them side by side.

The resemblance between the two stories is clearly not an accident, and it’s interesting to wonder why Alice Munro decided to go back to that narrative from her first book thirty-some years later and reimagine it. In a Foreword to The View from Castle Rock, the book in which the new story was published, she says of that group of stories, “I was doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring a life, my own life, but not in austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could … But the figures around that self did things they had not done in reality.”

Both versions of the story tell us about a girl in her late teens who is working, for the summer, for a family better off and more citified than her own. She is a sharp observer, self-conscious about the demeaning, or potentially demeaning, situation in which she finds herself. In each story the family has a vacation home on an island in Georgian Bay, though in the first version, the trip there is still to come, while the later story is set on the island. In one she lives in a room over the garage, in the other, in a room over the boathouse. In both her employers have a daughter younger than the main character. There are moments when the two stories seem almost to be in conversation with each other. In each one there is a boozy party at which a male friend of the family makes some kind of sexual overture, direct in one, indirect in the other.

Presumably Alice Munro looked back at a story written forty or more years ago, and decided that she had more to say, or could say it more fully and subtly. In “Hired Girl” she investigates the experience of her central character at greater length and forgives her less. The exploration proceeds, as she says, “searchingly,” and the young woman is shown as capable of significant cruelty. Her nascent sexual hunger is vividly dramatized. At the story’s end, she receives a gift which—the older self telling it all suggests—deserves something better than her careless response. She has half-anticipated a seduction and all she gets is a book.

In the revised story Alice Munro is using her brilliantly developed gifts to analyze and judge a younger self, and also the self, not quite so young, who created the earlier narrative, yet while the first vision is less fluent, less sensual and dangerous, for me it has its validity, its own kind of truth.

And it strikes me that the difference between memoir and fiction is not signalled by the depth of analysis of the central character, but by the treatment of the others. A self portrayed in words, however searchingly, is only notionally real. The inner life cannot be given the substance of the aging face in a Rembrandt self portrait. If the other characters are not given the full weight of what-really-happened, the work, however brilliant, is fiction.

The Word for Beauty

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

We were sitting in The Merchantman, seven of us. Dinner that evening was an occasion to welcome two poets who had arrived on the Island to give a reading at the public library. One of them, Sue Sinclair, had just explained that her career, when she wasn’t writing poetry, was graduate study in philosophy, and her field of research was aesthetics. Well, that set everybody going on the subject of beauty.

I was listening, and I suppose I was thinking—though I didn’t notice it going on—and a couple of minutes later I found myself saying, “Beauty” (I think what I meant was our perception of beauty) “is a spandrel.”

The word comes from architecture, and it has various related meanings, all of them related to the space that comes to exist when a curve meets a straight light. If a dome, for example, is supported by arches, the space between the arches is a spandrel. It is not an element in the original design, but a necessary side effect of that design.

I first came across the word, and a particular contemporary use of it, while reading the New York Review of Books, specifically a review article by (or was it about?) the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. As long ago as 1979, Gould (who died at 60 in 2002) used the word to describe certain elements in his understanding of evolutionary biology. In the 1979 article, written with Richard Lewontin, he described spandrels as “necessary architectural by-products of mounting a dome on rounded arches”. The two scientists then defined spandrels in evolutionary biology as necessary by-products of natural selection, created by, though not themselves directly selected by, nature’s evolutionary process.

They included among their evolutionary spandrels certain “key features of human mentality.”

I have never read the original paper, only found occasional references to the idea in review articles by Gould or Lewontin, but over dinner that night, there came what was to me a new thought, that our perception of beauty is an accidental side effect of our evolutionary development.

Imagine yourself a hunter-gatherer in some prehistoric landscape. What you need in order to survive is sharp eyes to find food, sharp ears to avoid danger, clever fingers. Centuries of evolutionary development will favour these characteristics, until sharpness of vision and acuteness of hearing are very highly developed.

But time passes, and the hunter-gatherer becomes a farmer or a city dweller. The acute visual and aural perceptions are less urgently necessary, but they still exist, built into the human brain. Look attentively at this, it says, listen carefully to that. Think of those moments when a certain slant of light, a certain texture or colour holds your attention with more than natural acuity—as if you were watching for the tiny movement that would reveal an edible creature.

And side by side with this gratuitous acuity, we have developed self-consciousness. How that happened and just what is meant by it is one too many for me to explain, especially in a short column, but it exists. We have the sense that we can possess, in some strange and yet familiar way, the things we see and hear—“This is my time of day,” we remark—and our perceptions are all of them informed by a supererogatory urgency, the legacy of the famished, vulnerable beings who were our ancestors.

There is another step, of course, from that point to the production of art, the clever fingers wanting to imitate and reshape what is seen, what is heard, to share it with an audience, but that creative impulse is a next step—self declaring itself—beyond the first detached awareness of beauty. Beauty as we perceive and love it—colour, light, shape, the noise of wind and water, art of all sorts—is the psychic product of sheer intensity of awareness, a super-powered noticing, perception informed by the energy of raging appetite and primitive terror.

Heads of State

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

As I sit down to write this, the Prince of Wales is visiting the country, parliament has voted to abolish the gun registry, and a couple of nights ago at a dinner at the Confederation Centre I met the head of the Inuit national organization and the Premier of Nunavut.

Each of those current events bears on my sense of my own country, its values, its past and its future. One makes me angry, one makes me thoughtful, and one makes me hopeful.

Let’s deal with the anger . I find it annoying that a political party that talks about getting tough on crime—itself a repellent cliché—is encouraging the withdrawal of a policy, the gun registry, which is defended by the police chiefs of the country’s biggest cities and the national association of chiefs of police. What those leading us in this direction are interested in is not the practical problems of dealing those misfits who break the law, but crime in capital letters, an enemy that provides a focus for resentment and vengefulness.

And yes, I do know something about guns, belonged to a couple of rifle clubs in my youth. I also know that guns have only one function, to kill. Necessary now and then, but there is no more reason guns should be unregistered than there is that cars should be unregistered. Less.

Next: does anyone care about the royal family? There have been more opinion polls. To me Prince Charles comes across as a well-meaning, slightly hapless fellow who has suffered the misfortune of living in the age of celebrity gossip, and who unwisely married an extremely beautiful young woman with a genius for public relations. I don’t much care about Prince Charles, but still I’m inclined to call myself a monarchist. In a parliamentary form of government we need someone to serve as head of state, to stand for our loyalty to the best of the past, our hope for the future, and election of a head of state would simply muddy the waters with party politics—though I still rather like William Thorsell’s suggestion that the Governor General be elected by members of the Order of Canada.

The Queen is an acceptable symbol for the long history of parliamentary government, and the office of Governor General allows us to have a head of state who is largely above politics and can speak to what is best in the country. Michaëlle Jean has more than once shown her suitability for the office. I think particularly of the little journalistic flurry over her eating the piece of seal heart she was given on a journey through the north. Her reaction was calm, measured, confident and intelligent. She refused the hysteria of celebrity.

Seal heart brings me to Nunavut. The Symons Lecture at the Confederation Centre was given this year by Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Eva Aariak, the premier of Nunavut, made a short speech in reply. I met both women briefly at the dinner afterward and was reminded once again, how much of the country most of us don’t know.

Both women, while acknowledging problems, made a point of expressing optimism about the state of the north. Both communicated a calm determination.

Elections in Nunavut, Eva Aariak explained, are currently non-party elections, and the chief minister is not elected by a party, but by the members of the legislature. So she has recently found herself elected Premier.

One of the first things, she told us, that the new legislature did on coming into office was to commission a large survey about how satisfied people were ten years after Nunavut was founded. The results were not very good. People were not satisfied. The survey identified a long list of problems.

“All of them insoluble,” someone said sympathetically.

“Oh, no,” the Premier said cheerfully, clearly undaunted. “Some of them can be fixed in a year.”

Now there’s hope for you.

David Helwig holds the position of Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island.

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